Remembering Betty White: The first lady of television

Betty White at Touchstone Pictures' World Premiere of "You Again" at the El Capitan Theatre on Sept. 22, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

Drew Hudson, a third-year student at St. Thomas University, grew up with episodes of The Golden Girls playing in the background. For him, and many others, Betty White was a constant example of success in the industry.

The actress, producer and animal-lover died on New Year’s Eve — three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. When Hudson and his roommates heard about her passing, they gathered in the living room to talk about the star’s life and legacy.

“It’d be really hard to find someone who wasn’t a fan of hers, just because of how her career has had such longevity,” said Hudson.

White first appeared on radio in the 1940s, beginning a career that lasted more than six decades. Her first job on TV was Hollywood on Television, which she eventually went on to host. White co-founded Bandy Productions and her new company produced Life with Elizabeth, where she played the title role.

American actress Betty White is seen in this publicity photo from the 1950s. (Submitted: NBC Photo Archive)

Nicknamed the “first lady of television,” White went on to play well-loved characters in sitcoms like The Carol Burnett Show, The Mandy Tyler Moore Show and the self-titled Betty White Show.

Her performances garnered eight Emmy awards. On the movie screen, she played fan-favourites in The Lorax and The Proposal.

White was a frequent guest of quiz shows like What’s My Line? and even made an infamous appearance hosting the sketch show Saturday Night Live in 2010. 

Stewart Donovan, a film professor at STU, watched The Golden Girls with his mother and grandson, who is transgender. He said White’s character, Rose Nylund, is a favourite among the trans and gay communities.

Hudson thinks her acceptance and advocacy is one reason she resonated with fans. He said her range was impressive — from a classic actress of old Hollywood to voicing characters in Studio Ghibli films.

“I do hear her voice in [Studio Ghibli] productions,” wrote Donovan in an email. “She is one of the elderly folk’s [home] residents in Ponyo.”

Besides being a pioneer of the American sitcom, Donovan said White was also an independent producer of her own work.

Hudson said that one reason he thinks she was so successful as a comedian is that she was always in on the joke.

“She’s had the same relevancy of Julie Andrews [and] a lot of other famous women that you look up to and never really think that they could just pass away like that,” said Hudson.

White famously loved animals and was an ardent supporter of animal rights.

San Diego Zoo Global Conservation Ambassador Joan Embery, left, introduces kangaroo kisses to Betty White in this photograph taken in 2013. (San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance/Flickr)

On what would have been her 100th birthday, the “Betty White Challenge” went viral on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Fans were encouraged to donate as little as $5 to animal shelters in White’s name.

The challenge was well-accepted, raising over $12 million worldwide. In Fredericton alone, over $21,000 was raised.

Before her passing at the age of 99, White recorded a video intended for her 100th birthday special.

The recording was repurposed for a movie celebrating the actress, which will have special guests like Joe Biden and Cher. The movie, entitled Betty White: A Celebration, will air this Monday, one month after White’s death.

“I feel so fortunate to have as great a career as I’ve had for as long as I’ve had,” said White in the movie’s trailer.